Thursday, July 13, 2006

I got a call from Jane Taylor of Positive News (UK) a couple of months back. She said she knew of a hemp farming project in Africa, and would I care to meet a friend of hers from Kenya who was here in London looking for information on hemp? Sure did, and I was out the door to meet them and their friends without so much as pausing to grab an A-Z. Most cannabis grown in Africa seems to be the roll'n'smoke variety, and the interest in hemp in one country, Zimbabwe, disappeared like a wisp of hot skunk when a certain poltician decided to engage in a little 'ethnic cleansing' of the farming community. Interest in South Africa had also dissipated at the same time, although there, qualified researchers did conduct field trials from which there is a record. Chris Sanders, who writes on the website, had dug up some information on this country's resurgent hemp industry and had found that several high grade German hemp seed pressers had been ordered by the government, but have since disappeared, never to have been put to use. He had started compiling a dossier on African nations, with a particular view to their laws on hemp, and had been suggesting we contact embassies to gather more information and see if we couldn't introduce the idea of legalising and supporting hemp cultivation. A week or so later he too was out the door, keen to meet up anyone already running with the ball.
Jane's friend had hit paydirt, and my eyes lit up over dinner at Hugo's in one of London's most fashionable neighbourhoods, South Kensington, where we first met, guests of Carol and Bryn, the proprietors. Tim Nimmo had gone where few hemp activists had, into the heart of Africa, or, more precisely, the East Coast, Kenya. Somehow he had gotten permission to import a ton of hemp seed and decided to plant it. He started asking me for facts about cultivation as he dialed up Kenya on his mobile. Rummaging through a manuscript of Hemp for Victory, I tried to get details to him as he told me the crop was now six weeks' old and doing well, after having taken seventeen days to germinate. Right off I sensed something might not be ideal, and it came out he had been storing the seed for a while. Needless to say, the African heat may well have damages some of it, so the long gestation period was to be expected.
Nonethelss, he had done it, and the crop, whatever its limitations may turn out to be, will be a milestone in the recent history of hemp farming.
Tim's motivation for doing this in the first place was a concern for the environment, he is not a farmer, but a wine merchant. Having spent a good amount of time in Kenya, he had observed the destruction of the local environment, including the burning of forest timber to produce charcoal for coooking and heating. So bad is this practice that in some parts of Africa mahogany is turned into charcoal, and Kenya has made this illegal.
Hemp stems can produce their woody stems in three to four months, and can thus save a lot of forest. In addition, the outer bark of the stem can be used for paper pulp, textile fibres and rope. This last use was the reason for hemp's importance for centuries, and in Kenya, where sisal plantations run into the tens of thousands of acres, tough fibre production is a key industry. Recently sisal prices have been dropping, and plantation owners have been looking for an alternative in the future.
The inner stem, which contains less cellulose than the outer bark, is not useful for cordage or textile production, but can be used in paper, a fact which the US government spent time on in 1916. A research report on this was produced under its auspices by Jason Merrill and Lyster Dewey, the famous Bulletin 404. In addition to this, many experimental batches were made, reports of which were not made public, but which, being in my possession, will be soon (on this site and in a future book on hemp paper). America, however, started using its forests for paper, and then other peoples' forests for paper, so now we are facing a shortage of trees. Kenya is no exception; some paper mills have used all the surrounding forest and must pay to have wood pulp imported over great distances. Therefore, a local source of hemp for paper mills would be ideal.
As the hemp plant produces a highly nutritious seed, full of Omega 3,6 and 9 oils, having a locally grown source of hemp oil would benefit the population. After the oil, which accounts for 30-35% of the seed, is pressed out (and maybe those oil presses in storage somewhere in South Africa can be put to use), the cake, which is also highly nutritious, can be used both for humans and animals. As hemp varieties can be fibre oriented, seed oriented, or dual use, it may be best to obtain the latter.
Of course, talk about which variety is best will depend on the local growing conditions. One aspect of the Kenyan project is the heat and paucity of water for irrigation. Sisal does well as it is a desert plant, but hemp, despite any internet myths about it needing no irrigation or fertiliser, needs both. It has been shown to be somewhat drought resistant, but it certainly is not a desert plant and making any such claim would be harmful.
Appeals to seed banks on this issue were made, with Ecofibres of Australia being the first to answer the call. Phil Warner of Ecofribre has been working on varieties for years, and given the dry climate in many parts of Australia, his company may well be more suited to the task of supplying Africa than the more northern seed banks in Russia and the Ukraine. Ideally, a dual use drought resistant variety would work best. Even if not dual use crop, a seed variety will still provide the inner stems and a second grade fibre from the outer stem.
A top grade fibre variety would be good for textile fibres, but there are reasons for not pursuing this at the moment in Africa. One is that there are currently no hemp or linen fibre processing facilities, another is that the mills are not geared towards hemp weaving as they are in China and Romania, and a third is that there may not be a local market for hemp clothes while other fibres are less expensive. Taking lots of time to try to develop these, while still not sure what quality fibre will come out of the outer bark in this part of the world (the best fibre came from the Piedmonte region of Italy, where an even maritime climate characterised the growing season), would be asking for trouble. As hemp takes root, and field trials with different fibre varities can be accomplished alongside an established cash crop, a hemp textile trade may come into its own. That said, I might emphasise that even in the UK, which has been growing thousands of acres a year recently, there is still no hemp textile manufacture. A crop grown and retted here ten years ago had to be processed in Romania. Current studies are being undertaken by oufits such as BioRegional, with large grants to grow acres of hemp and study processing. So far, the goal of creating a UK hemp textile industry has not materialised, and from this it might be wise to decide to concentrate efforts on non-textile applications.
These conclusions were shared by Tim and Jane, and as time went on, by others attending the meetings, semi-formal events here in London, brainpicking and brainstorming tea parties at which yet another person had his own report from Africa: Vidura, who has formerly presided over large farms in Uganda, including bean farms which shipped their produce back to the UK. He had lots of interesting stories, including the one about insisting that all the farm hands bring their wives with them on payday to sign for the wages. He figures this protocol saved a lot of lives by making sure the stipend was not frittered away in a night. In some places, the line between llife and death is thin, and such measures are of great importance. AIDS, hunger, malaria, typhoid and other dark realities lie at the door, waiting for their next victim.
The picking and storming brought about the decision to continue to work with Tim, from whom we await a report on the crop, and to write a proposal for Vidura, who has been granted access to the Free Trade Zone in Uganda. At this time, we are still compiling data for such a proposal, with Vidura answering umpteen queries about annual rainfall, soil conditions, monthly pay of farm workers, etc. as we strive to weave it all together into a comprehensive work.
One thing Vidura has just sent is data on paper consumption per capita in African Sub-Saharan nations. This is relevant to our discussions as he knows of a large paper plant in the FTZ area, which is running out of trees to scavenge for pulp. Should they switch from wood pulp, not only could hemp fibres be used, but sugar cane waste and recycling could replace wood pulp as well. Hemp does not have to be the only source of non-wood fibre, but would certainly be the strongest vegetable fibre and the easiest to grow (especially as it requires little or no pesticides.)
Perhaps peripheral to the main discussion, the issue of bird and animal pests was raised in discussion as the hemp seed is so esteemed by many species. One pest that is not fond of hemp is the elephant, which is an almost uncontrollable pest in many parts of Africa, thus an elephant-proof crop is of value. Africa does have a number of avian pests, including the Red-headed Quelea, but these pests can be managed in an environmentally friendly way, by using birds of prey to patrol the fields (a US gov study states that one hawk can patrol 200 acres). Avian predation, if it is even a problem in African hemp fields, would be limited to the short period in which the seed matures and possibly a short time after planting (which can also be controlled by placing sheeting or netting over the field).
Getting hemp to grow in Africa is not only of benefit to Africans, but as this would reduce pesticide use, deforestation and carbon emission, of use to all of us. Any interested parties are urged to contact me at for further information or details of how you can support the project.

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